Craving Culture: Alicia Korten
Alicia Korten is the mystic gardener of culture. She cultivates the ecology of organizations and removes rocks on the path toward organizational wholeness. She is a prolific writer and leader of two consulting firms: The Culture Company and Orange Grove Nine, which combines Mindful Innovation with Conscious Culture to help organizations navigate turbulence.
Alicia’s professional calling is clear: to awaken the workforce. She advocates conditions that enable people to be inspired in their work and guides teams to a “collective we” that fosters values-driven organizations, impact and prosperity.
Alicia craves a sense of home. “Having grown up in various places around the world, I had an acute sense of when I had an experience of belonging and home, and when I was wandering. Now I experience that sense of home when I guide a group of people toward wholeness, where before they felt divided. Home is as much a feeling of belonging as a place.”
A strong organizational culture provides a sense of place.
For many defining culture is elusive. People may think of culture as a simple indicator of whether employees are happy or not in their workplace. Culture, however, is much more complex. A strong culture requires empathy, emotional intelligence and an honest assessment of values. These foundational elements create the conditions that determine people’s experience of an organization and guide their behavior.
“People in organizations often crave an innovative environment whereby people who have different perspectives can approach issues and challenges from a unique vantage point. At the same time, they need something that binds them. Common values bind people together. At its core, culture is fueled by values.”
The long-term success of any organization depends on “getting culture right.”
Customers use culture as a filter to decide which brands to choose. Strong culture motivates people to devote their passion and skills to an organizational mission. People want to love what they do and do what they love.
Alicia defines culture as the shared psychology of a work environment. “It’s the thing that drives behavior, sets habits and fuels decision-making. When you walk through the front door, do you feel dread, or do you feel excitement, acceptance, and drive? That collective feeling is your culture.”
How does one create a strong culture?
Simultaneously pursuing a grassroots and grasstops approach is essential. Ideas that bubble up from the bottom have staying power as people embrace what they themselves create. Leaders set the tone, establish a point of view and model attitudes and behaviors that cascade throughout the organization.
How do you identify values to consciously drive your culture?
“There is how organizations commonly create their values and then there is what works. What’s common is that leaders pick a bunch of values that may or may not have roots in their history. Yet complete reinvention of personality is not a trait of the strongest, most iconic companies. Values work is about a deep understanding of your core essence and how you translate that in order to navigate into the future.
Alicia’s philosophy about culture has roots in her experiences deep in the jungles of Panama, working with tribal leaders to preserve their way of life amidst threats of the construction of the Pan-American Highway through their lands.
“In Panama, we organized meetings in villages with tribal leaders, who came in from all over the region to vision the future they wanted for their lands. After these regional meetings, I’d travel back with leaders to their villages to be part of the village gatherings they held to share their experience. In one, a tribal elder shared a story with his community, which unfolded for hours. I don’t speak Kuna so had a Spanish-speaking translator sitting with me. A half-hour in I asked, ‘So what did he think of the meeting?’ And the person translating for me said, ‘Oh, he hasn’t gotten to the meeting yet. Right now, he’s talking about the devastation he saw as he traveled to the meeting, and his surprise that the rainforests are gone, and the cattle ranchers have moved in, and the trees are burned.’ And then a half hour later, I asked ‘Well, so what did he think of the meeting?’ And the person translating for me said, ‘The meeting hasn’t started yet. He has just arrived in the village and he is talking about what the food they gave him was like, and how he bathed in their river before the meeting started.’
“One of the things I learned from this experience is that everyone has a different pathway of processing information and getting themselves ready to do what somebody else would refer to as the ‘real work.’ We can’t walk into a room and say, ‘All right. Everybody create, everybody innovate, everybody unite!’ There are a lot of things that have to happen along the way to build the container for the creative process and to build unity around what is created. Through the texture in his story, this elder was building within his community an urgency to act and helping community members trust the other tribe with whom they were building an alliance. The new path forward requires a soul-shift that then enables people to create from wholeness and come together.”
“There are so many forces that create ‘us-and-them’ environments in society. These bleed into the narratives we hear in the workplace. Leaders who are imposing things upon us; the lazy staff that never gets things done. Whether it’s the workplace, politics, religion, or the media, we’re constantly bombarded with us-and-them stories. We have, as a society, forgotten how to have real dialogue about the things that matter to us in a way that moves those us-and-them conversations into a ‘collective we.’ Yet when we do, this space becomes the garden that allows people to come up with the most innovative, life-giving solutions for the challenges that we face as organizations, as societies, and as a planet.”
“We have had to cut off so many pieces of ourselves in order to survive in many workplaces today. It is not healthy. In fact, it affects our brains. When we experience isolation at work, our brain disassociates — which undermines our happiness, our productivity, and our creativity.”
Although culture manifests as a feeling or a sensation, there are pragmatic methods of understanding and creating culture.
The consulting firm Orange Grove Nine, LLC, which Alicia and I co-founded, offers 75 learning experiences, grouped according to five themes: Empathy, Creativity, Values, Mindfulness and Creating from Wholeness. These can be assembled in a modular fashion to address a spectrum of organizational issues related to culture. They can be used to help teams define and evolve their culture while navigating turbulence.
The name Orange Grove Nine came from the symbolic meaning and experiences both Alicia and I have with oranges. For me, they represent a memorable childhood narrative and have metaphorical super-powers because of their multi-sensory nature — intriguing texture, fragrance, feel, beauty, diversity and, of course, taste. I have used oranges as a prelude to my keynote speeches for several years.
Alicia’s experience with oranges is complementary to mine. “When I think of oranges, I imagine my mother playing in the orange groves with her relatives in Redlands, California as a child. For me, the orange grove represents a vision of a future that is seeded in life, where love flows freely — a world of organizations and communities that put life at the center. That is what I most want to cultivate through the Orange Grove Nine trainings.”
That healthy balance of heart and mind, combined with an extra dose of brilliance, is what makes Alicia special. When she looks to the future, she sees alternative realities — some tragic, and others filled with hope and transformation. Seeing the steps humanity takes now as vitally important to creating the future we want, she helps communities and organizations talk about what is real for them to arrive at their own authentic path forward. We need this mix of magic in order to arrive at the place of wholeness from which we can create our collective future. Wholeness and a sense of home in culture are elemental to Alicia’s mission, purpose and skills.